Irish rider Sam Bennett appears set to leave the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad at the end of the season, with team manager Patrick Lefevere confirming his departure on Sunday.
Bennett’s ascension to the top of world sprinting occurred after his move to the Belgian squad at the end of 2019, with what is widely recognised as the best lead-out train in cycling helping him secure two stage wins plus the green jersey in last year’s Tour de France, as well as other key victories.
Bennett has consolidated his position as cycling’s best sprinter this season, taking seven wins thus far. However, while Lefevere said that the Irishman would ideally like to stay with the team, other squads are offering salaries that the manager is unable to match.
“He doesn’t want to leave, but I don’t have as much money as certain others,” he told media outlets including Het Laatste Nieuws at the start of stage two of the Giro in Stupinigi.
“I used to have to negotiate for two days during the Tour de France, now I have been besieged by managers for two days. I had to go from meeting to meeting. Is it purely a matter of money? You should ask him [Bennett], maybe that’s what his agent wants.”
Lefevere suggested that it was already too late for him to change his mind, saying that he had ‘flipped the switch’ about trying to keep the 30-year-old. “The fact that these types of riders leave is life. As pros they have to earn as much money as possible.”
However, he pointed out that several successful sprinters also left the team in the past under the same circumstances, looking for higher salaries. He didn’t name them but Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish and, more recently, Elia Viviani moved after successful seasons at Deceuninck-QuickStep and then found it difficult to either reach or sustain the same success elsewhere. Cavendish returned to the team this season on a reduced salary.
Bennett has been linked with a possible transfer back to his previous Bora-hansgrohe squad. He left the team dissatisfied with a lack of support, with triple world champion Peter Sagan and the younger German sprinter Pascal Ackermann being given precedence. Both Sagan and Ackermann have since struggled to reach their previous levels and with both said to be likely to leave the squad, Bora-hansgrohe is reportedly keen to re-sign Bennett.
However, the team previously lacked anything like the same lead-out train Bennett has enjoyed at Deceuninck-QuickStep. Unless he can bring key teammates such as Michael Mørkøv across with him, departing from the Belgian team appears to come with some risk.
Bennett told The Irish Times on Sunday evening that he preferred not to comment for now. He took two stage wins in the Volta ao Algarve in recent days, and sealed victory in the points competition on Sunday.
Meanwhile Tim Merlier won stage two of the Giro d'Italia on Sunday, jumping early and holding off his rivals in a bunch sprint into Novara. The Belgian Alpecin-Fenix rider hit the line ahead of European champion Giacomo Nizzolo (Team Qhubeka Assos), Elia Viviani (Cofidis Solutions Crédits) and the rest of the main field.
The Giro d’Italia is Merlier’s first participation in a three-week tour. “I am really happy,” he said. “Really proud of it. There was a roundabout that was really important at the end. I was in a good position and coming out of it, I was thinking we need to go faster, faster, faster. Then Alex [team-mate Alexander Krieger] did a great lead-out and put me in a perfect position.
“I went from far [out], I think, 250 metres, but in the end it was enough.”
Race leader Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) was prominent in the closing moments and stayed out of trouble, defending the pink jersey of overall leadership. He padded his advantage by three seconds when he won an intermediate sprint and ended the day 13 seconds clear of Edoardo Affini (Team Jumbo-Visma).
Irish overall contender Dan Martin (Israel Start Up Nation) finished 64th while his first cousin Nicolas Roche (Team DSM) was 95th. Both finished in the same time as Merlier.
Roche will head into Monday’s undulating stage to Canale in 46th overall, 43 seconds behind Ganna, while Martin is 106th, one minute back. He lost time on Saturday’s opening nine kilometre time trial in Turin but will hope to move up the field on the first uphill finish of the race on Tuesday.